A barely legible clue — the name “Simon” carved in Greek letters — beckoned from high up on the weather-beaten facade of an ancient burial monument. Their curiosity piqued, two Jerusalem scholars uncovered six previously invisible lines of inscription: a Gospel verse — Luke 2:25.
Archaeological finds confirming biblical narrative or referring to figures from the Bible are rare, and this is believed to be the first discovery of a New Testament verse carved onto an ancient Holy Land shrine, said inscriptions expert Emile Puech, who deciphered the writing.
A few Old Testament phrases have been found on monuments, and a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (13:3) is laid into a floor mosaic into the ancient Roman city of Caesarea.
Jim Strange, a New Testament scholar from the University of South Florida, said the ancients apparently believed chiseling Scripture into monuments debased sacred words. The widespread use of Bible verses on shrines began only around A.D. 1,000, in Europe, said Strange, who was unconnected with the discovery.
The inscription declares that the 60-foot-high monument is the tomb of Simon, a devout Jew who the Bible says cradled the infant Jesus and recognized him as the Messiah.
It’s actually unlikely Simon is buried there; the monument is one of several built for Jerusalem’s aristocracy at the time of Jesus.
However, the inscription does back up what until now were scant references to a Byzantine-era belief that three biblical figures — Simon, Zachariah and James, the brother of Jesus — shared the same tomb.
Applying the 'squeeze'
Earlier this year, an inscription referring to Zachariah, who was John the Baptist’s father, was found on the same facade. Puech and Joe Zias, a physical anthropologist, continued to study the monument. Applying a “squeeze” — a simple 19th-century technique of spreading a kind of papier mache over a surface — they uncovered the Simon inscription. Now, they hope to complete the trio by finding writing referring to James.
The Simon and Zachariah inscriptions were carved around the 4th century, at a time when Byzantine Christians were searching the Holy Land for sacred sites linked to the Bible and marked them, often relying on local lore, said Puech.
The monument is in the Kidron Valley, to the east of Jerusalem’s walled Old City and west of the Mount of Olives. The Bible says James was hurled off the Jewish Temple, bludgeoned to death in the Kidron Valley below and buried nearby. The historian Josephus refers to a Temple priest named Zachariah being slain by zealots in the Temple and thrown into the valley. There is no word on Simon’s death.
There have been historical references to a Byzantine belief of joint burial of the three, although there is no evidence they were actually buried together.
The six lines in the Simon inscription run vertically. The letters run together, are of different height, a little crooked and relatively shallow.
They were clearly carved by laymen, said Shimon Gibson, of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, who was present when Puech and Zias applied the squeeze during the summer but who was not connected with their research.
Referring to the carvers, Strange said: “These were folks who knew their Greek and their Luke, but didn’t know how to be masons.”
Reading between the lines
The inscription says the monument is the tomb of “Simeon who was a very just man and a very devoted old (person) and waiting for the consolation of the people.” Simeon is a Greek version of Simon.
The passage is identical to the Gospel verse Luke 2:25, as it appears in a 4th-century version of the Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, which was later revised extensively.
“This (the inscription) shows there were different versions of the Old and New Testament going around,” said Zias, who presented his find Thursday at the annual conference of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Atlanta.
The Zachariah and Simon inscriptions were chiseled into what is known today as Absalom’s Tomb, one of three large funerary monuments built in the Kidron Valley for the city’s rich.
It is unlikely Absalom, a son of King David, is buried there; the monument was built several hundred years after his death.
The name was assigned to the tomb in Medieval times, along with a custom of stoning the facade as a show of disdain for Absalom, who murdered his half brother for raping their sister and later incited a rebellion against his father.
Jews, Christians and Muslims participated in the ritual, badly scarring the facade and all but erasing the inscriptions.
Zias, a member of the Science and Archaeology Group, a team of scholars affiliated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found the Zachariah inscription by chance — in a photograph of the facade taken just before sundown.
Had the photograph been taken at any other time of day, he might not have seen the worn inscription. Using a squeeze, Puech deciphered the words: “This is the tomb of Zachariah, martyr, very pious priest, father of John.”
Strange said he had little doubt the inscriptions were genuine. If fake, “then it was forged by someone who failed because nobody noticed (the inscriptions),” he said.